Shiseido Nombre Noir: to catch a Unicorn

There is this rare, elusive category of perfumes, the Perfect, Discontinued scent. It is the most sought after, exclusive, masterfully blended kind of perfume. It was so perfect that it had to stop existing. Its ingredients so pure and rare that they are no longer available. Every now and then a bottle appears here and there and everybody is either spending 4 digit prices or fantasizing about it. The lucky few that have smelt the Discontinued masterpiece are witnesses of its perfection: nothing available now comes near. Of course the Great Discontinued is nothing more than a metaphor for youth and nostalgia: what is now Discontinued was once commercially available and what is now available will at some point become Vintage. Somehow the present is never as good as the past sounds. A place revisited is never as good as the first time. Past youth seems so careless when looked at over once shoulder. It seems that turning the head 180 degrees towards the past forces the eyes to squint just enough to make everything look a little more appealing. The myth of perfection never seen and yet as real as our hopes is as old as the Unicorn. As much as I like to think of myself as someone evolved enough to see the unavailable for what it really is (non-existent) Ι have many times drooled over the essence of Unicorn and fantasized about a bargain bid.

Nombre Noir is my Unicorn. Serge Lutens’s ability to guide a perfumer in capturing the essence of a dream in a bottle and Shiseido’s aesthetics were a match made in heaven and Feminté du Bois is a testament to this. Imagine this combination accompanied by the ultimate perfumery legend: a scent so rich in fragile damascones that it starts dying the moment one opens the bottle. A composition so rich in top quality osmanthus extract that it wasn’t worth selling. And a packaging so mysterious and intricate that added to the exorbitant cost of the product. Legend has it that a Unicorn can only be lured into the trap by a virgin. I was a lot luckier. A woman in black brought this Unicorn to me. Amazed at the generosity of my perfume friend I received a generous decant of the rare essence and this is my encounter with it.

Nombre Noir is not a dark fragrance. It is a luminous and abstract scent. It opens with a very strong and abstract aldehyde accord that seems to hold captive a rose in its heart. The combination of intensity and light brings to mind a marble sculpture. Although it is bright and almost translucent it has a volume and weight that are disproportionate to the impression it creates. Although it looks light enough to lift like a feather it is in reality unmovable. I have never encountered this combination of lightness and strength in another perfume. From a distance it smells velvety but up close it has a peppery sting. The rose itself is an over-ripe red bloom with its petals wide open exposing sweet and powdery golden anthers. What is more vivid in this rose is not the photorealism of the rose scent itself but the reality of the velvety texture of its petals. It is not sweet but it has a mature fruitiness, a fuzzy, sticky abstract fruitiness. As time passes the red rose becomes paler and whiter. Softer and younger. Underneath the topnotes there is this exquisite, old-fashioned  heart of iris, vetiver and greenness that supports the top and lifts it like a balloon. I thank the gods of marketing dynamics that have made this accord, which was so typically feminine a few decades ago, so undesirable to modern female perfume buyers that it has lost all its past associations with this gender. Having lost its collective memory load it is now reinvented and perfectly suitable for men. The heart of Nombre Noir has a lot in common with Chanel No19 and Jacomo Silences but with a completely counter-intuitive brightness. In the drydown the abtract rose is still there but now it is fresh, pale and coupled with a delicate suede note.

Nombre Noir has nothing to do with darkness. It is all about regeneration. Watching its development is like watching a slow motion video of a bud blooming and dying, but in reverse. Maturity is followed by youth, freshness and potential. This is not a beautifully done rose dominant fragrance because everything about this flower is abstract. More important than the flower itself are the fuzz on the petals, the dewdrops, the dust. Texture and light are more important than individual notes. Abstraction is its most prominent virtue and in this sense it reminds me of La Myrrhe.

What I smelt from this vial is probably very different from what someone could smell back in 1982 when Nombre Noir was released. The generous friend who provided me with this decant confirmed to me that the sensitive damscones started decomposing the moment she opened the bottle. So is this review relevant? As much as any review of a vintage perfume. If you want to build some new synapses you can read this essay in two parts (here and here)on this subject in Sherapop’s excellent blog.

For more reviews of this Unicorn of a scant you can read Perfume Smelling Things, Yesterday’s Perfume, Perfumeshrine and La Gardenia nell’Occhiello among others.

Notes from Aldehydes, Bergamot, Coriander, Marjoram, Rosewood, Geranium, Orris root, Jasmine, Lily-of-the-valley, Osmanthus, Rose, Ylang-ylang, Amber, Benzoin, Honey, Musk, Sandalwood, Tonka bean, Vetiver

Notes from my nose: rose, pollen, velvet, dewdrops, dust, vetiver, green notes, iris, suede

Image of Unicorn via The Pandoran

Image of Nombre Noir from Perfume Do Dia

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


About Christos

Scientifically minded but obsessed with the subjective aspect of things. Photos copyright of MemoryOfScent, with special thanks to Pantelis Makkas You are welcome to link to my blog but you are definitely not allowed to copy text or use the photos without my permission. All text and main photos are originals and property of MemoryOfScent All perfumes are from my collection unless stated otherwise.


  1. Hi Christos. I hope you have been well. I thought you had been keeping quiet until I realised somehow I had dropped off your email list. Great thing is I now have a month or so of reading material from you to catch up on! I haven’t smelled Nombre Noir but it is one in my herd of unicorns I will one day find.

  2. What a glorious and thoughtful review. I so enjoyed it. I have no unicorns so I think I need to find one to dream about too.

    • Christos

      You are lucky that you have no unicorns Lanier. The are elusive and treacherous 🙂

      • laniersmith

        Yes Christos now that you mention it …. I think I will not pursue the unicorn if I can help it. Just ride the ponies in the old corral ….oh oh…was that a Unicorn on the crest of that hill over there? Here hold the reins to my pony I will be right back……

  3. Natalie

    I love the image and metaphor you chose for this, and I find that I really like the idea that some things in perfumeland are truly and completely temporal—like whatever Nombre Noir smelled like before its fragile damascones (great band name!) started dying.

    • We tend to forget but perfumes are fragile by definition. What we describe as development is nothing but their sweet decay and our complaints over discontinuations and reformulations is nothing but futile denial of the obvious fact that beautiful, natural, complex ingredients are rare and fleeting. Beautiful perfumes are closer to haute couture for this reason and we keep complaining because are ready to wear clothes are not as beautiful.

  4. Pingback: Shiseido Basala: ghosts of perfumes past | Memory Of Scent

  5. I bought a sample and I am wearing it right now. I think you are making too much fuss over this perfume. It is nice at first and it fades fast to nothing much. I let everyone smell it and no one at all was amazed all day. If it were still available, it would be a yawn. If someone recreated it, people would say it lacked all the wonder of the first. Remember when wine snobs first had to admit the California varieties were better? “the judgment of Paris”? Up till then the same folks disparaged American wines. We fool ourselves into believing hype and create the most ridiculous markets of excess. It is the emperor’s clothes. If I fail to wax poetic, then I obviously have no nose. But go back and read the things the “experts” said at the first blind wine tasting of California wines compared to French. One professional said, “This is a typical American wine, it has no nose.” But it was a French wine of course. I am not sorry I spend the 40 dollars on the small sample. It was worth knowing that the emperor is naked. Buy something nice that makes you feel pretty. Don’t go chasing unicorns. They don’t exist.

    • Kathy this was exactly my point: vintage perfumes are unicorns, with all good and bad this brings with it. Nombre Noir was an interesting experience, a beautiful perfume or rather a fraction of the beautiful perfume it was. It’s composition was based on ingredients thta were volatile and fragile so what you and I smelled was probably very different to what people had smelled when it was commercially available and fresh.

      However hunting unicorns and vintage perfumes has a very subjective and emotional aspect that touches many collectors. It just doesn’t make sense to compare these über rare perfumes with the modern ones. I would never pay the prices a bottle of Nombre Noir commands today but I would also never pay these prices for a bottle of fresh perfume. It is sad that 5 USD or euro per 1ml of eau de parfum is becoming more and more a regular price.

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